Whenever the Hong Kong Government releases any type of promotional videos to endorse a harmonious community, different citizens respond and decode the message differently—they may fully accept the message, or, in contrast, fully oppose the message. This situation reflects the practice of Stuart Hall’s “encoding-decoding” model. In this reflection, we would examine how and why different audiences decode the Government’s 2010 Lunar New Year blessing video differently.
Hall’s influential essay “Encoding-Decoding”, published in 1973, was a major influence on cultural studies, focusing on the relationship between the media message (encoding) and interpretations of the message (decoding). It brings up an important idea of how messages are produced and disseminated, referring particularly to different media. Hall also pointed out that “the moment of encoding and that of decoding are socially contingent practices”. This model has been criticized to be involving three parties—Sender, Message, and Receiver. The Sender fixes and disseminates the meanings or messages in the form of symbolic vehicle, constituted within the rules of “language” or any form of communication. After the Message is sent to the Receiver, the Receiver requires knowledge and producing relations to further understand and decode in his/her own perception.
However the encoding and decoding process does not fit with every communication. Those engaged in the communication process who do not share “common codes and social positions” would likely undergo a different decoding process, resulting a different decoding from that of the intended meaning of the encoder. Termed by Umberto Eco, this scenario is defined as “aberrant decoding”, which refers “to a text which has been decoded by means of a different code from that used to encode it (Eco 1965)”. Eco claims that mass media tends to encourage the publics to form a particular interpretation, and since the mass media broadcast messages to heterogeneous audiences, it is inevitable for different decodings of such messages to appear.
In the government 2010 Lunar New Year blessing video, the Government aims to encode the message “it’s nice to go home (回家真好)” to Hong Kong citizens. Unlike the previous traditional Lunar New Year videos, which simply show the Chief Executive Donald Tsang walking around with his wife, enjoying the holidays, the 2010 version was the first Lunar New Year video featuring cartoon graphics with the “McDull (麥兜) style”. It is important to mention that the McDull character and style are symbolic of Hong Kong, since they are one of the most popular cartoon characters in Hong Kong and are created by local illustrators; the McDull stories are also reflective of the Hong Kong culture and society. Thus, by using the local McDull character and his friends, the government hopes to establish a common ground with the audience in order to encode feelings of closeness, warmth, harmony, and happiness in the Chinese New Year holidays. The video illustrates Tsang, McDull, and other people, such as students and office workers, going home happily to their love ones so as to reinforce the overall message. Moreover, the background music, called “Serenade 《小夜曲》”, written by the late Austrian composer Franz Schubert (舒伯特), is sweet, calm, and relaxing, which creates a warm and loving mood for the video. By using this video, the Hong Kong Government wishes to reinforce the enduring value of harmony among the public.
In general, most audiences may simply experience a dominant-hegemonic reading, fully accepting the original video’s encoded message, while other audiences did not. After the distribution of the blessing video from the Chief Executive, some democrats edited the original video clip in response. In contrast to the original video, the edited video is not as harmonious. In the original video, Tsang was going back home congenially, along with other Hong Kong citizens. In the edited version, however, one citizen was requesting for the Tsang’s concern, but was finally kicked away out of the frame by the Chief Executive. Tsang said that his boss is in Beijing (the Central Government), and it is unnecessary for him to take care of Hong Kong citizens’ views. Moreover, instead of lying in bed with his wife, Tsang was lying with Hu Jintao, the current Paramount Leader of China, giving appreciation to the imprisonment of human rights activists Tan Zuoren (譚作人) and Liu Xiaobo(劉曉波). “Is Donald good? (當奴真好?)”, the sender of the edited video asked at the end, subbing the statement of the original video. Actually, the Chinese question “當奴真好?” has another meaning—whether it is good to be a “slave” at the Hong Kong Government, since the Chinese word “奴” also means slave.
Original Video (Left): The CE back home with citizens congenially
Edited Video (Right): The CE kicked out the citizen
Original Video (Left): The CE lying on bed with Mrs Tsang
Edited Video (Right): The CE lying on bed with Hu Jintao
Original Video (Left): It’s good to back home & Edited Video (Right): Is Donald good?
So why is the encoded message from the Government interpreted and decoded by the audiences differently? From our point of view, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, the audience associated the video with the imprisonments of Tan Zuoren and Liu Xiaobo, because it was broadcasted during their lawsuits. The Government’s encoded message of “it’s nice to go home (回家真好)” signified that a warm family environment is desired by everyone. However, Tan Zuoren and Liu Xiaobo would be sent to jail very soon due to their criticisms to the Central Government. They could not “return home” for a long period. Audiences decode and interpret the video in a sarcastic way so as to reflect their dissatisfaction towards the Central Government. This interpretation is a typical example of oppositional-reading.
Lastly, the audiences deem that the Hong Kong Government follows the directions of the Central Government highly. So, they jokingly interpret “it’s nice to go home (回家真好)” as Tsang wanting to return to the home of Paramount Leader Hu Jintao. To a certain extent, the oppositional decoding reflects that the general publics have a high degree of disappointment towards the Government.
Links of the Videos